#PaBudget 2020: Our students deserve safe and healthy schools. This should be Job One | Opinion

Photo via pxHere

By Jerry T. Jordan

In January 2016, SEIU member Chris Trakimas reported to the FS Edmonds school to perform maintenance work on the school’s boiler and was gravely injured when it exploded. After a long battle, Chris died of his injuries. Historically, the task he was performing was assigned to pairs, but years of austerity left him assigned to the job alone.

In May 2017, Cassidy Elementary student Chelsea Mungo described her school building as “like a prison or a junkyard.” She asked Senator Vincent Hughes why the color of her skin affected the amount of funding allocated to her school.

In September 2017, as reported in the Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize nominated Toxic Schools series, 6 year old Dean Pagan wanted to keep his desk at Comly Elementary school tidy. So when dust rained down from the ceiling, and lead paint chips coated his desk daily, he ate them—and now suffers the life-long effects of severe lead poisoning.

And in August 2019, one of our beloved PFT members, Lea DiRusso was diagnosed with mesothelioma after having spent her entire career teaching in schools with known damaged asbestos. After a career of service to Philadelphia’s young people, she is now undergoing grueling treatment for an incurable disease.

Enough.

The time for action is now, and the stakes could not be higher. The lives of our young people, educators, and school staff are on the line, and we cannot wait a minute longer for action. The facilities emergency in Philadelphia’s public schools is nothing short of a humanitarian crisis.

It’s why our union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, is one of two teachers’ unions in the nation that employ an environmental scientist to monitor school conditions and present real solutions.

It’s why our union developed a first in the nation real-time reporting app for our members and communities to use to share on the ground observations and concerns. It’s why we established the Fund Our Facilities coalition to coalesce around not only elevating the issues we know our schools face, but to outline and advocate for real solutions. And it’s why the PFT has sued the District for immediate relief from catastrophic process deficiencies in their remediation efforts.

Our Fund Our Facilities Coalition, now more than 60 partners strong– from all levels of government, community organizations, and labor groups—has identified the urgent need for $170 Million in immediate resources needed to address the most urgent environmental hazards in Philadelphia’s public schools.

In fact, just in October, our coalition sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf urging for a $100 Million commitment to address lead and asbestos hazards in our schools.

It is clear that the governor is heeding our calls. As part of his budget proposal, he will unveil a potential $1 Billion facilities investment throughout the Commonwealth to address the lead and asbestos crisis facing our schools. The funding will be allocated through the RCAP process. It is a plan worthy of praise, and it is certainly reflective of our relentless pursuit of justice for our young people and educators.

But we know that the legislative process can be too long, particularly in the face of new imminent hazards being uncovered weekly or more in our schools. As such, we urge the Governor to utilize a multi-pronged approach to address this crisis with the urgency it demands. In addition to his RCAP proposal, we will continue pushing for the following immediate courses of action:

  • The allocation of rainy day funds to address the currently literal rainy conditions in our schools. With a balance of $340 million, the fund is well-suited for this critical investment.
  • The declaration of a state of emergency in Philadelphia’s schools. This process has the potential to free up funding in various capacities, and could likely help us to secure federal funding in tandem with state commitments.
  • Funding of PLANCON, the school construction initiative that has remained unfunded since 2015, and has enormous potential in yielding real results for facilities issues across the Commonwealth.

Every time I visit our schools, I see first hand the incredible work our educators and students are doing each day. And it takes my breath away to see not only their extraordinary work, but to see it juxtaposed with the inhumane conditions in which they are being required to work and learn each day.

The scope of the crisis is massive, but there are real solutions at hand. Our union has led the charge in fighting for the schools our children and educators deserve, and the urgency of this facilities crisis must remain at the forefront of our collective conscience throughout the budget season and beyond.

Jerry T. Jordan is the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.